Tradition on the Move, HBCU Bands Tell the Story

Marty Steiner • FeaturesFebruary 2021 • February 6, 2021

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The Howard drumline as it prepares to escort Howard Alumnae Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to the White House

I was hustling through the parking decks to the Mercedes-Benz stadium in Atlanta to attend the 2020 Honda Battle of the Bands (HBOB). The decks were full of small groups of older adults all headed into the stadium. Many of these groups were noisily cheering their bands on. Obvious were sweaters and jackets with band letters from many of the HBCU (Historically Black College and University) bands. The energy was infectious.

These HBOB bands represent a group of schools which carry on the traditions and identity of America’s Black communities. While their histories may vary, they all share some commonality of origin and purpose. All are heroes to their communities and beyond. SBO will trace the history of four of the Battle of the Bands Final Eight.

The answer to the classic “which came first…chicken or egg?” question in Grambling, Louisiana is simple. Grambling State University is the culmination and product of a historic Black community. With a population of over 95 percent African Americans, Grambling literally represents the full scope of Black history in this country. One Grambling historian described the city of about 5,000 as an “American success story that arose from the best and worst circumstances in US history.” Grambling, Louisiana is a community that originated from white owned plantations with primarily slave labor.

Dr. Tony Allen, CEO of the Presidential Inauguration Committee, with Joe Biden in 2017

Grambling State University was created by the desire of African American farmers in the area who wanted to educate others in the general area. They established the North Louisiana Colored Agricultural Relief Society in 1896 to organize and operate a school. Right after opening a small school they requested assistance from Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute. Washington sent Charles P. Adams, one of his staff, who opened the Colored Industrial and Agricultural School in 1901. With a focus on training teachers for rural education, the method became known as the “Louisiana Plan in Rural Teacher Education” and became a model across the south. After a number of name changes, Grambling State University was born.

The Howard University drumline practices for their historic role escorting Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris to the inauguration ceremonies. Harris is a Howard University alumni.

Grambling State University itself is a testament to that community and its community support. As a designated Historically Black College and University, the underlying purpose is both to provide quality higher education but also to honor and support Black communities and their heritage and history. Grambling State University’s founding may have been inspired by the establishment of other colleges and universities for non-white students. Other HBCU schools have variations on Grambling University’s history. All came into existence as a direct result of slavery and emancipation, with most located in the south.

The Grambling marching band came into existence in 1926 when the then Grambling president tasked a new faculty member to “create a group of marching musicians.” With no music department or even any instruments, the faculty member worked a deal with retailer Sears and Roebuck for 17 instruments. With no musical skills or experience, a small sit-down concert band was formed. After a series of years and directors the band grew in skill and experience. An appearance at a nationally-televised AFL halftime in 1964 took the country by storm moving the band towards its goal of becoming “the best band in the land.” Super Bowl I halftime sealed the deal. The band has grown from the original 17 to over 300 members and appears globally. The Tiger Marching Band is one of five Grambling band organizations. Most recently, Grambling participated in the “We Are One” pre-inaugural event of the Biden-Harris inauguration.

Hampton University might well claim to have been born in battle. As Union Major General Benjamin Butler captured Fort Monroe early in the Civil War, he made it known that any slaves reaching his lines would become war contraband and would not be returned to their bondage. Large numbers of slaves responded to this call of freedom. A self-contained African American camp was established near the fort and named “The Grand Contraband Camp.” It became America’s first all-Black community.

In spite of a Virginia law prohibiting the education of Black people, Butler enlisted Mary Peake to teach basic reading and writing skills. Her first Butler School for Negro Children class of about 20 students began in September of 1861. This class was held under a large oak tree which still stands on the Hampton University campus. It is named the “Emancipation Oak.” After a sequence of school names and the involvement of the American Missionary Society, Hampton would graduate its most distinguished student, Booker T. Washington. Washington would then go on to establish the Tuskegee Institute just nine years later.

The Hampton University “Marching Force” is an example of history looking forward. In back-to-back announcements, the band announced two partnerships, one with Pepsi and the other with Peloton and Beyoncé. The Pepsi partnership involves television advertising featuring the band in its “Pepsi HBCU Marching Band Experience.” The Beyoncé effort, which includes ten HBCU bands, is intended to, “celebrate the history, culture, significance and future of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.”

The American Missionary Society that became involved in Hampton University was just one of a number of northern religious groups that organized schools for the emancipated African Americans. Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina was established by northern Baptists. Rhode Island resident Bathsheba Benedict, working with the American Baptist Home Mission Society, purchased a former slave-owner’s plantation near Columbia, South Carolina to establish a school. With education seen as key to the future of the freed slaves, Benedict Institute opened its first class in 1870 with 10 freed men as students. Early classes were held in the former slave owner’s mansion, described as “dilapidated.” Initial classes focused on basic reading and writing skills. The college was headed by white Baptist ministers until 1930 when one of its own alumni became the college’s first Black president.

The Benedict College Marching Tigers “Band of Distinction” is more recent, having been organized in 1998 with about 60 members, although there was some band activity as early as 1960. Today, at 185 members it has been recognized twice by being selected as one of the “Final Eight” by the HBOB. The band has presented some Benedict College history through the music selected for its field shows. Band Director H. Wade Johnson regards the group as a “DO organism.” That’s a Discipline and Order motivated group. The group is taught, “music is a message that brings universal love to one and all.”

Another school established by the American Baptist Home Mission Society of New York was the Natchez Seminary in 1877. The stated purpose was “the moral, religious. and intellectual improvement of the Christian leaders of the colored people of Mississippi and neighboring states.” It focused on creating “teachers and preachers.”

The seminary moved to Jackson, Mississippi in 1882 and after a number of name changes is now Jackson State University. A marching band was not established until the 1940s, although there were band and other music activities from the 1920s on. The marching band was dubbed “the Sonic Boom of the South” by its own band members in 1971.  The Sonic Boom is particularly known for its intricate precision formations and “big band” arrangements and sound. After numerous national appearances as well as Battle of the Bands performances, “the Sonic Boom” was most recently honored to be selected as part of the Biden-Harris Inauguration events. Tony Allen, president of the HBCU Delaware State University, acting as the CEO of the inaugural ceremonies and events, made this announcement on January 18.

But it’s not all about marching bands. Jackson State, like many other HBCU institutions, also includes jazz music studies and performing groups. An active program of African music, basic to many African American music genres, is also taught on campus and performed by student musicians and dance ensembles.

Jackson State and Grambling were not alone in the inauguration events. A total of seven HBCU bands participated. In addition to Jackson State and Grambling were Florida A & M’s Marching One Hundred, the South Carolina State University Marching 101, Southern University’s Human Jukebox Marching Band, and the Tennessee State Aristocrat of Bands. In addition, these bands were joined by the Louisiana Leadership Institute All Star Band, an all-Black high school honors marching band.

If there was a “star” band in the inaugural events, it would have to be elements of Howard University’s “Showtime” band. Due to pandemic precautions, only a portion of their marching band performed in the inauguration. As Vice President Kamala Harris’ alma mater, Howard’s drumline escorted the new Vice President to the White House.

Howard is unique in the HBCU community as the only such school established by the Federal government. Although the First Congregational Society started the effort in 1866, Howard was chartered by Congress the next year. It was named after former Union General Oliver Otis Howard who was then serving as the Commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau, an agency responsible for addressing the needs of freed slaves. The band is now preceded by a banner proudly declaring “Home of the Vice President, Kamala Harris!”

As I returned to my car after last year’s HBOB, one of those groups that I had encountered earlier in the day drove by. “Don’t you think our band won?” they hollered at me. “They ALL won!” was my immediate response. Community and school pride are obvious whenever and wherever these bands perform.

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